How about we speak Italian together?

I recall an experience a few years ago when I asked a friend of mine, who is from Barcelona, how he decided when to speak Catalan and when to speak Spanish.  He told me that many times it depended on which language was part of the first encounter.  If he used Spanish the first time he met someone, most likely Spanish would forever more be used together.  If they used Catalan the first time they met, chances were that they would always use Catalan.  He said that once you begin in one language you almost never change to another later.

I have seen that pattern myself.  There are Brazilians that I speak with only in Portuguese, others only in English.  There are Chileans I speak with in Spanish, others in English.  There are Chinese friends that I continually practice Chinese with, others with whom I only speak English.  Once the pattern is set, it rarely changes. And it isn’t really an issue of proficiency.  That is to say, we don’t automatically go with the language of highest proficiency.  I have friends, for example, who speak to me in German, even though their proficiency in English is much better than my German.

So, why am I thinking of this?  Last week I met a new MBA student here at UT who is from Italy.  When we started talking I could have done things in Italian (although my Italian isn’t all that great), and he gave every hint that we could speak Italian together, but somehow we started in English.  Now I’m disappointed to think that we’ll forever be locked into English together.  Similarly, lately I have noticed that even though I have made some progress in my Chinese proficiency (slow but sure), I still use English with the people that I first began associating with in English.  It’s like we have zero tolerance for messing with our pattern.

It also has me thinking about the context of those encounters.  Since I met this Italian student here in Austin, I’m sure that this fact had something to do with our initial use of English.  Had we have met in Milan, chances are that our first encounter would have been in Italian.  There is also an issue of assertiveness or concern for others.  Would I assert my desire to practice Italian on this person?  It almost seems selfish on my part.  It makes my need to practice Italian more important than the real life interactions that I’ll have with this student.  Still, he would have gladly spoken in Italian.

So, what to do about it…  Do you see in the picture how aggressively I am getting ready to get on the subway in Beijing?  Well, I’m going to take the same approach when I meet people for the first time.  If I want to speak Italian, I had better get started from the get go.  Maybe it’s not too late with Giorgio.

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7 Responses to “How about we speak Italian together?”

  1. Tommy Says:

    Just as a thought experiment, if we assume that the foreign language level is equally proficient on both sides, I think the determining factors are environment (assuming its largely monolingual, like the US), the circumstances (for ex, tourist-directed services; business emails which may be later shared with others), and the assertiveness as you mention. This last one is tough because I often wonder if the other party is as much of a language learner and lover as I am. Maybe this is some pride or selfishness on my part, but I tend to think that I will benefit more from the encounter in my foreign language than the other person will in English, so I try to be assertive, even to the point of pretending to not speak English.

    What about foreign airports? The ticketing and security agents see my US passport and name, and assume English. I have had the range of experiences, where my initial greeting in the foreign language determines the conversation. Other times we play the frustrating and sickening back and forth game, me speaking the foreign language and the other person speaking English. Other times, I just pretend to speak only English; maybe it pleases them to do their job successfully in the language of globalization more than it pleases me to go through a relatively perfunctory process in a foreign language. In these cases, I can accept reserving English for the nuts and bolts dealing with non-native English speakers; meaningful, thoughtful encounters, however, are another issue, where typically proficiency is the determining factor.

  2. Jessica Says:

    Next time you see him talk in Italian, he might not think for it as a inconvenience, but as a nice reminder of home to hear someone greet him in Italian.

  3. jp 吉平 Says:

    I explain this phenomenon to people every time someone tells me they’re going to start talking to their kids in the heritage language, or when someone tells me they’re going to start practicing with their significant other.

    There are a few people I feel I can code-switch freely with, usually because we lock-in with code-switching at the beginning.

  4. Orlando Says:

    JP, right. People often ask me if I have taught my wife to speak Portuguese and my response is, “no, we have a life to live together.” Life isn’t a grammar lesson. It would be pretty fake to do all of that in Portuguese with her.

  5. jp 吉平 Says:

    I’ve also noticed that some high society mexicans (not necessarily mexican americans or chicanos) are pretty hostile toward code switching. I used to get stern warnings like “cuidado, estas andando en el pochismo.” Which of course I don’t even slightly care about.

    The worst was that the same people that complain about how naco it is to code switch are constantly code switching themselves. Which itself is naco, in my opinion.

  6. Peggy Patterson Says:

    The same thing happened to me when I met my husband. He is Cuban-American and learned Spanish first at home and English at school or with friends. But when we met he was working in the language lab and majoring in German. I was studying for an MA in Spanish in grad school and taking German 101. So when I went to the language lab to check out German tapes we spoke basic German and of course English and I had no idea he spoke Spanish. By the time I found out he spoke Spanish we had already establish English as our language of communication. We’ve been married 20 years now and although we both speak Spanish we communicate in English unless we are with others that speak Spanish. I suppose since we live in an English speaking country it is logical.. but we have often commented to each other that it is interesting that we don’t naturally speak Spanish with each other because we ‘met’ in English. I think you are right Orlando that you establish a language of communication and then you have to make an effort to change it.

  7. Brent Stewart Says:

    I find this entire discussion fascinating. I love languages, but would hardly say I am good at them (though I can function in about 10, but three of them are quite dead, so no one can talk to me in them). I have found this example to be so truth. I have friends that I met decades ago, who were from France. At the time, I didn’t know French, and we spoke in English. Their children were later raised in Canada, and althought fluent in French (attended French Schools). Though I lived in France many years, and learned French fairly well, everyone in the family speaks to me in English. When I speak to them in French, they will answer in English. For a long time, I thought my French must be simply terrible. But, it turns out, it is quite excellent. But like you say, the pattern was set years before, and speaking English to me is what they do (even when their English has issues at times). As an aside that has nothing whatever to do with languages, is the writer of this blog related to a Wolfgang and Eileen Kelm that once lived in Salt Lake City on Jolly Circle? My family knew your family years ago back when you lived in Calgary Alberta Canada. We visited you in Salt Lake decades ago on our way to visit my grandparents in Arizona. That year, it snowed so badly a roof caved in on a shopping mall. I have often wondered what happened to your family and how they are. I remember Wolfgang was a photographer who had a beautiful photograph of the Salt Lake temple on the wall. If you are from this family, I hope all is well. My father was Kay H. Stewart. He died of cancer a number of years ago. Any rate, languages are fascinating. Am I alone with this thought: I think one really comes to understand a people only after one is familiar with their language, as that is a reflection of their logic patterns. Once we come to understand their language, we not only know the words they are saying, but we understand their way of approaching a thought. And when that happens, the personal revelation it brings about those people is so wonderful to experience. At least that is what I feel. I do wonder if others have felt the same way.

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